As It Happens

Journal removes poop drawing with Donald Trump's face — but offers no explanation

Science reporter Ivan Oransky says the journal owes readers an explanation as to how the illustration got there in the first place.

Scientific Reports issues correction noting 'there were unusual aspects' to the fecal illustration

A drawing of U.S. President Donald Trump’s face appeared on this image of baboon feces in the journal Scientific Reports. It has since been removed. (Scientific Journal via Retraction Watch )

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A scientific journal has deleted an illustration of baboon feces adorned with a tiny image of U.S. President Donald Trump's face — but a science reporter says they owe readers an explanation as to how it got there in the first place.

The paper, first published in the journal Scientific Reports in January, took the internet by storm this week after the problematic poo was shared on a Facebook page called Wild Green Memes

On Wednesday, the journal updated the paper with an editor's note explaining that the "unusual aspects to the 'Extract fecal DNA' illustration" had been removed.

Neither the journal nor the paper's authors responded to As It Happens' request for comment.

Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, a website that tracks changes in science literature and has been covering this unusual saga, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off. Here is part of their conversation. 

Does this correction bring us any closer to understanding how or why the U.S. president's face ended up in a cartoon of baboon poop?

Unfortunately, it does not, because no one's really talking about what happened or didn't happen here, which, you know, is, I would say, par for the course when something goes wrong in science.

Why do you think that they're being so quiet about it?

I hate to read people's minds, of course, but it's consistent with how journals tend not to like to talk about their dirty laundry.

In the case of this particular dirty laundry, so to speak, you're dealing with a person — or president, at the moment — who obviously has a tendency to blow things out of proportion, to jump up and down and tweet.

So, frankly I can understand why they wouldn't make a huge deal out of it, but if you're going to make a correction in scientific literature for whatever reason, there should probably be some sort of explanation, not just calling it "unusual" — which is quite a euphemism. 

The image that you have of the offending feces is really large. I mean, it's blown up enough that you can see clearly Donald Trump's face on it. But in the actual article with the baboon in the feces, it's teeny-tiny. It's so small. How did anyone ... even discover that the face of Donald Trump was in the poo?

We don't know that either, and frankly, it's kind of unrealistic to think that someone reviewing this — like a peer-reviewer, for example, or an editor — before publishing, pressing publish on this, would have seen it.

One can presume, anyway, that someone was tipped off. Because in order to actually get the image we posted in Retraction Watch ... it required more effort than simply, you know, pressing enlarge on my Chrome browser. It required going through a few extra steps. 

It's important to know that this paper was originally published in January. Nobody seems to have noticed this or nobody seems to have gone public with it until this month.

Do do you think it was somebody's private joke up until now?

I suspect the authors put that in there as what someone described as an "Easter egg." Authors have done that before, but usually in ways that they want to be discovered.

There's ... a number of cases of people who added their dogs, or in one case a hamster, to the author list  — but it's easily discoverable if you actually look. This, you wouldn't even know to look because it's not in an obvious place.

When you started to enlarge it, what did you think when you actually were able to go through the processes to see what was there?

Well, I did smile. You can't help but chuckle.

I then got some reactions ... because I'm not sure what my opinion is, to be honest.

A number of them said, yeah, it was funny, but it also just feeds into this notion that, you know, scientists are liberals and they don't like Donald Trump and they don't like conservatives. And we are at a particular time in our history.

The argument by other people was, well, you know, it's funny, but does it really accomplish anything? And could it actually do more harm than good?

Jokes sometimes land, and sometimes don't. But this was not someone standing on stage presenting a joke — it was someone almost hiding a joke. 

Trump has not yet commented on the issue. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Scientific Reports is a prestigious journal and it did seem people were commenting that this is a bit juvenile. 

In the world of journals, it is not one of the leading journals. It's what's sort of referred to as a mega-journal. They publish thousands and thousands of papers per year.

But it is published by Springer Nature, one of the world's largest scientific publishers, and so, yeah, it does seem a little juvenile given the context.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.